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Germany's Far Right Party AfD and Its Rhetoric of Radicalisation


“Millions of migrants from other cultures challenge the foundations of our community, the unwritten rules of coexistence, and thus national identity itself,” wrote the German politician Alice Weidel in her 2019 book “Counter-arguments. Thoughts about Germany” (German: “Widerworte. Gedanken über Deutschland”).

Weidel is the co-chairwoman of the far right party Alternative for Germany (Alternative für Deutschland, AfD) and the leader of the AfD parliamentary group in the Bundestag, the lower house of Germany's federal legislature.

In recent years, the AfD has gained significant support and influence in German politics. The party was founded in 2013 as an anti-euro movement, but later shifted increasingly towards right-wing extremism.
 
Alice Weidel in 2019. Sandro Halank, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons


The AfD surged to 24% in a January 2024 YouGov poll, trailing only the Christian Democrats (29%), and ahead of the Social Democrats (15%) and the Greens (12%).

On January 10, 2024, the investigative outlet Correctiv published a report revealing that high-ranking AfD politicians, neo-Nazis, and sympathetic business figures had attended a secret meeting in November 2023 to discuss the mass deportation of migrants, asylum seekers, and German citizens of foreign origin deemed to have failed to integrate.

The meeting, which took place in a hotel near the city of Potsdam, focused on a so-called "remigration" plan, i.e. the forced removal of people with non-German ethnic backgrounds, even if they are citizens of Germany. The report sparked widespread outrage, leading to large protests across Germany.

Ever since its emergence on the political scene over a decade ago, the AfD has conducted a campaign of radicalisation. Exploiting economic and social crises as well as racism, islamophobia and cultural conservatism, the AfD has crafted a new nationalistic narrative the likes of which the country had not seen since 1945.

In this article, I will first discuss the meaning of the concept of radicalisation, and then I will examine a few excerpts from Weidel’s book to demonstrate how the AfD is implementing its strategy.

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•Defining radicalisation



I define radicalisation as a non-linear process by which polarisation and the breakdown of compromise, tolerance and dialogue cause individuals or groups to resort to conflict and violence to accomplish political goals (my definition is based on Feddes et al. 2020, chapter 2).

Radicalisation can lead to the use of non-violent pressure and coercion, or to various forms of political violence, including terrorism and mass murder.

The process of radicalisation involves an ideological transformation, a move away from mainstream beliefs towards a “dichotomous worldview” and the delegitimisation of the existing political system (ibid.).

There are various types of groups whose ideologies can be susceptible to radicalisation. The most important are:



1-nationalist/separatist

2-far right

3-far left

4-single-issue groups

5-religious fundamentalist



These groups may overlap. For example, a political movement can combine nationalist, far right and religious fundamentalist ideas.

Radicalisation is based on three processes:



•categorisation

•“us versus them”

•in-group superiority



Humans are social animals who seek companionship. Being part of a group can offer increased safety, better material outcomes (e.g. through division of labour), as well as enjoyment and recreation.

Humans have a natural tendency to categorise others in order to more easily process and retain complex social information. Categorisation allows people to manage and store information, and to predict certain traits or behaviours in others. As a result, many individuals rely on categorisation to comprehend and attribute meaning to the world around them.

People categorise not only others, but also themselves. They create a distinction between their own group (“us”, or the in-group) and other groups (“them”, or the out-groups) (ibid., chapter 6).

Categorisation is not neutral. In most cases, positive and negative traits are associated with different groups. People are inclined to think positively about themselves and their in-group. They may also consider themselves and their in-group superior to others. The feeling of in-group superiority may in turn reflect back on the individual, giving them a high sense of self-esteem (ibid.).

Individuals fulfil their needs for belonging, association, and membership by joining various types of groups, such as those based on family, tribes, friendships, interests, recreation, education etc.

While being part of multiple groups enhances a sense of belonging and affiliation, no single group is entirely essential to the individual self. The family may be the most notable exception to this rule, but in most cases, individuals can transition between social groups with minimal psychological discomfort. This multifaceted affiliation allows individuals to avoid relying solely on any one group for their identity (Braddock 2020, pp. 17-18).

Categorisation, us versus them, and perceived in-group superiority are common phenomena found in most groups. However, under certain circumstances they may lead to radicalisation.

Radical groups make clear distinctions between people, drawing rigid boundaries between the in-group and out-group members. They view out-groups as inferior and possibly as a threat (Feddes 2020, Chapter 6).

This dynamic is also common to cults. I would argue that radical groups and cults have overlapping characteristics, the main difference being that cults usually revolve around a charismatic leader. In a previous article about the personality cult in China's political system, I have explained that cults use the following strategies of thought control:



1 milieu control

2 mystical manipulation

3 demand for purity

4 confession

5 sacred science

6 loading the language

7 doctrine over person

8 dispensing of existence



In radical groups as well as in cults, people have a strong identification with the in-group, are expected to believe in an ideology, strictly adhere to it, and attach more value to their own group than to the out-groups. This can lead to the justification of violent acts and even mass murder against members of out-groups (“dispensing of existence”) (see Feddes 2020, Chapter 6).

Braddock calls this process “self-deindividuation” and ”other-deindividuation”:

“While individuals undergo self-deindividuation, they can also experience a parallel process where they deindividuate people who do not belong to their group. As an individual comes to believe that their social conditions are affected by external groups (a common tenet of extremist ideologies), they may also come to perceive those groups as a uniform collection of enemies. When this occurs, the individual develops beliefs that treat all members of enemy groups as homogeneous. This is a critical step in the context of political violence, as people tend to demonstrate greater aggression against those they do not see as distinct entities” (Braddock 2020, p. 18).

The next step is the dehumanisation of out-groups, which paves the way for the justification of violent acts:

“[I]ndividuals begin … to consider out-group enemies as subhuman, referring to them as animals, pests, vermin, demons, or monsters. By perpetuating the idea that the members of enemy groups are part of a deindividuated, subhuman collective, extremist groups rationalize violence against those perceived enemies. [O]nce violence against out-group enemies has been justified and performed, radicalized individuals may also engage in ‘demonization’ whereby they become convinced that their enemies are the manifestation of a ‘cosmic evil’” (ibid., p. 19).

Pressure to conform to group ideology and replace the individual self with the group self is very strong in radical groups (including in cults). Failure to conform leads to ostracism, in being tossed out of the in-group, thus becoming a member of the out-group, with all the negative psychological and possibly material repercussions this entails.

Simultaneously, radical groups emphasise the need for a clearly defined out-group to highlight the contrast between their own perceived superiority and the inferiority of others. This results in a deliberate search for an out-group that is regarded as inferior, allowing them to clearly define the boundaries between the two. The in-group not only sees itself as a coherent homogeneous community, but it also reduces the out-group to an indistinct homogeneous mass without individuality (Feddes et al. 2020, Chapter 6).

Having briefly examined the concept and process of radicalisation, I will now look at some examples from Alice Weidel's book.


•The Language of Radicalisation



In chapter 3 of “Counter-arguments. Thoughts about Germany,” Alice Weidel defends the idea of the nation-state (the following excerpts are my translations):

“The notion that the nation-state (Nationalstaat) is a ‘relic of the 19th century’ that must be overcome in the name of progress is also a common refrain in political standard declarations. The longing to dissolve German statehood in supranational associations, whether in a European Union that would be transformed into a European superstate, into ‘United States of Europe’, or even in a UN world republic, to which national statehoods would have to submit without complaint, connects the political generation of Helmut Kohl with the Merkel generation.

“The democratic nation-state is a model for the future. It remains the predominant principle of order and the basic building block of global political architecture even in the 21st century. ‘The human race has not yet developed a better form of organisation than the nation,’ rightly observes the Swiss Thomas Hürlimann. Without the framework of the nation-state, neither a democratic order nor a functional welfare state is conceivable” (Weidel 2019, chapter 3).

Alice Weidel is using common themes of nationalist rhetoric that have been a part of public discourse in countries around the world at least since the 19th century. But they have been competing with universalist ideas, for instance the concept of universal human rights.

Weidel seeks to reassert nationalism as a viable political ideology in Germany, and frames the nation as the in-group shaping people's identity, allegiance, sense of self, as well as political action.

However, she also introduces a new concept that has become popular with the far right in recent decades. She portrays the nation as the precondition for and the very essence of democracy. According to Weidel, democracy is not a set of universal rules and values, but the political embodiment of a nation. This logic turns democracy from a set of universal values to a nation-specific political ideology. Her argument becomes clearer in the following passage:

“Democracy means people's rule (Volksherrschaft). The ‘dēmos,’ the politically organised people, is, in other terminology, the nation. The sovereign of every democracy is the national people (Staatsvolk, lit. ‘state people’), according to classical international law doctrine, together with a clearly defined territory and the state authority over it, a constitutive element of the political entity ‘state’...” (ibid.).

The German word “Volk” (cognate of the English word “folk”) does not have the exact same meaning as the word “people” (which comes from Anglo-French pople, peple, peuple, ultimately from Latin populus).

The German dictionary Duden provides five meanings, the first two being: 1) “a large community of people connected by a shared culture and history [and language]” (durch gemeinsame Kultur und Geschichte [und Sprache] verbundene große Gemeinschaft von Menschen); 2) “the mass of members of a society, the population of a country, a state's territory” (Masse der Angehörigen einer Gesellschaft, der Bevölkerung eines Landes, eines Staatsgebiets).

The word Volk is therefore quite ambivalent. But Weidel clarifies that, in her view, “Staatsvolk” is not just a legal term:

“The term ‘Staatsvolk’ is more than just a population that happens to be present in a specific territory. A minimum level of commonality (Ein Mindestmaß an Gemeinsamkeiten) is required to form a nation out of a group of individuals. This includes shared historical experiences, language, and culture …” (ibid.).

The state is therefore not based on universal values, but requires a national community. It is noteworthy that Weidel uses the phrase “a minimum level of commonality”. This is an arbitrary, subjective and vague criterion. It does not hold up to any serious scrutiny. For instance, a person who grew up in Munich (former West Germany) and a person who grew up in Dresden (former East Germany) in the 1950s or 1960s do not have “shared historical experiences” and may have no “minimum level of commonality”. There is no objective criterion for establishing a minimum level of commonality between the citizens of a state.

Weidel's definition is flexible enough for politicians to change it, move the goalpost, exclude or include entire groups of people. But it also signals that at least the people who can trace their ancestry back to a few generations, and who agree with the AfD’s views, will be “protected” and considered the “real” people, accentuating the in-group feeling of AfD supporters and potential supporters.

Furthermore, Weidel uses the Greek word “demos,” while in fact what she is describing is an “ethnos.” According to Michael Mann, the dēmos is “a simple political definition of the people of a country,” while ethnos is the “construction of those people … as a nation with a common culture and heritage and ‘distinct from others’” (quoted in: Fenton 2010, p. 159).

Although her concept of Staatsvolk is ambiguous, she is very straightforward in her condemnation of Islam. That is the primary out-group against which she defines the in-group.

Since she believes that democracy is not about universal values, but about national homogeneity, she further condemns “multiculturalism” and migration as anti-democratic. She writes:

"‘Multicultural democracy’ is a contradiction in terms because it lacks the democratic sovereign (der demokratische Souverän). The partial or complete replacement (Auswechselung) of this sovereign through large-scale, unregulated, and unmanaged migration from other cultural areas (Migration aus anderen Kulturkreisen) is an attack on democracy itself, just like the attempt to melt down and dissolve the democratic nation-state in a supranational union, a ‘superstate’” (Weidel 2019, chapter 3).

We see here how Weidel twists the meaning of democracy. Democracy (as I explained in a previous article) refers to a political system, and as such it can exist in the US, Canada, South Korea, France, Taiwan and anywhere else. Similarly, autocracy can exist anywhere.

But Weidel shifts the focus away from laws and institutions towards the national identity of the “sovereign,” which allows her to appropriate the word democracy for her own nationalist agenda. Unlike the far right before World War II, the contemporary far right reinterprets democracy as a form of superior culture inherent to specific nations. She is also articulating the far right theory of ethnic replacement, calling migration an attack on democracy.

Whether Weidel's ideas are popular is a separate topic. It is possible that they appeal to a large segment of society. Interestingly enough, there do not seem to be publicly available surveys on the issue of national identity, race and ethnicity in Germany.

I will simply point out that her arguments do not reflect a democratic, but an ethno-nationalist viewpoint which is based on categorisation, “us versus them”, and in-group superiority.

This becomes obvious in chapter 4 of her book, titled “Freedom or Islamisation” (Freiheit oder Islamisierung). Note the either/or framing of the issue, a hallmark of in-group versus out-group rhetoric. Weidel writes:

“The most shocking consequence of the government's loss of control in public spaces is the significant increase in sexual violence against women and girls, both in terms of the number of cases and the geographical spread. This includes obscene insults, groping, sexual harassment, assault, attempted and completed rapes. The sense of security of many women and girls has been destroyed.

“These incidents can occur during the day or at night, while walking, jogging, or cycling, in parks, on public paths, or in busy areas, in urban centres, villages, or small towns, in swimming pools or public transportation. Within families, among friends and classmates, it has become a topic of discussion regarding where and how one can go without the protection of someone else.

The overwhelming majority of the perpetrators are young men from the North African and Middle Eastern, in short, from the Muslim cultural sphere” (ibid., chapter 4).

There is a lot to discuss in this passage.

The first thing to note is that the issue of crime, and specifically sexual offences such as rape, is extremely sensitive and arouses strong emotional reactions. It is one of those topics that can easily kindle passionate responses. This is inevitable and also understandable.

Weidel has chosen this exact topic in order to frame the issue of “Islamisation.” It is a good way to make sure that a debate on immigration cannot be conducted reasonably and dispassionately.

According to Statista, in 2012 Germany registered 9.2 cases of rape and sexual assault per 100,000 inhabitants. The number remained quite stable for a few years, but it rose to 13.7 in 2017, plateaued at around 11 until 2022, when it surged sharply to 14.1. The website Mediendienst Integration states:

“In 2021, 86.4% of immigrants suspected of being involved in a criminal act were male, and 57.7% were younger than 30 years old. The majority of the immigrants came from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. However, their proportion among the suspected immigrants is below average, meaning that individuals from the main countries of origin are less frequently involved in criminal activities. On the other hand, suspects from countries such as Nigeria, Algeria, and Georgia are overrepresented.”

As criminologist Christian Walburg explained:

“In all societies and at all times, the highest crime rates are observed among men transitioning from youth to adulthood. This fact is particularly significant in assessing the frequency of registration of asylum seekers who have arrived in recent years, among whom a significantly higher number of men were in a ‘criminologically relevant’ age group than in the general population.”

Socio-economic factors, age, and gender play a significant role in assessing crime. The percentage of young men among asylum seekers is notably higher than in the general population, a demographic that exhibits a higher crime rate irrespective of their origin.

Moreover, crime statistics in Germany do not always include nationality or distinguish between migrants and visitors from abroad, making an assessment even more complicated.

But having a rational discussion about crime is difficult because it is such an emotionally charged issue. Anybody who tries to do so may appear to downplay or be indifferent to the plight of victims.

The demonisation of minority out-groups has a long history. Similar tropes have been used to denounce immigration, particularly the equation of immigrants with criminals. In 1856, the American nativist Thomas R. Whitney denounced European immigration into the US. He wrote:

"To believe that a mass so crude and incongruous, so remote from the spirit, the ideas, and the customs of America, can be made to harmonize readily with the new element into which it is cast, is, to say the least, unnatural … A single savage may be readily civilized; a whole tribe never … European immigration is unquestionably the 'Grecian horse' of the American Republic … Probably the most accurate data on which an opinion can be based is the enormous disproportion of European criminals in the United States, as compared with those of American birth.”

We see how Whitney deindividuated and dehumanised European immigrants, describing them as a “mass” that was “crude” and “incongruous,” claiming that their existence among people of American birth was “unnatural,” and depicting them as criminals. His arguments demonstrate the arbitrariness of in-group/out-group definitions.

The trope of the out-group “other” as a sexual predator has a long history, too. For example, “sexual antisemitism” was a component of anti-Jewish discourse for hundreds of years.

In 1917, the nationalist writer and politician Artur Dinter (1876-1948) published the sexual anti-semitic bestseller "The Sin Against the Blood" (Die Sünde wider das Blut), which quickly reached a circulation of a quarter million. The novel depicted "the Jew" as fixated on conquering the "blonde woman."

Dinter portrayed the supposedly negative consequences for "mixed-race children" from relationships with Jewish men, as well as the societal ramifications of biological decay and disintegration.

During the Nazi era, the implementation of the legal concept of "racial defilement" (Rassenschande) led to over 2,000 convictions between 1935 and 1943. While the racialised sexualisation of Jews had historical roots in Christian perceptions of circumcision as an evil practice, it was under the Nazi regime that the notion of the Jew as a sexual rival was linked to the image of the defiler of the “Aryan race” (Bühl 2020, chapter 3).
 
Anti-semitic drawing from the Nazi children's book “Trust No Fox on his Green Heath and No Jew on his Oath! A Picture Book for Old and Young” (German: Trau keinem Fuchs auf grüner Heid und keinem Jud auf seinem Eid! ein Bilderbuch für Gross und Klein). The book, written and illustrated by Elvira Bauer, was published in 1936. Source: USHMM


As Michael Berkowitz (2007) has shown, Jews were also associated with criminality in general. Several anti-Jewish tropes proliferated in majority Christian societies due to religious rivalry. Jews were identified with Judas, whose betrayal of Jesus was supposed to represent the Jewish people's treacherous and criminal character. Furthermore, the myth of the Jews as the murderers of Jesus (“deicide”) was widespread.

Apart from stereotypes based on Christian narratives, Jews were accused of being involved in prostitution, usury, and robbery. The idea of Jews as members, and sometimes leaders, of mixed bands of Jewish and Christian robbers found its way into German writer Friedrich Schiller's famous play “Die Räuber” (The Robbers, published in 1781) (ibid.).

The stereotype of the Jews as inherently criminal was exploited by the Nazis to portray them as a threat, justifying violence against them. The anti-semitic Nazi propaganda film “Der ewige Jude” (1940) depicted the Jews as a small minority that was responsible for a disproportionately high percentage of crime:

"The parasitic Jewish people constitute a large part of international criminality. In 1932, the proportion of Jews, who make up only 1% of the world's population, in the global drug trade was 34%, in pickpocketing 47% [...], in international theft gangs 82%, in trafficking of girls 98%” (quoted in: ibid.).

Another example of the sexualisation and criminalisation of out-groups are stereotypes associated with African-Americans:

“By the turn of the twentieth century, an entire set of ideas about the negative and even disastrous consequences of sexual relations between whites and blacks gained ascendancy … [B]y the end of the nineteenth century and in the first decades of the twentieth century, there was a belief among whites that miscegenation would result in the degeneration or decline of the white race.

“In effect, many people of European descent sought to maintain the purity of the white race against the threat of black sexuality. This was especially true of black male sexuality. Many white men felt that they were protecting white womanhood and sexual purity; others had anxieties about their own sexuality and feared the prowess of black men. Dubious or questionable accusations of the rape of a white woman by a black man could result in violence. Even lesser accusations along the same lines could have a similar outcome. This often resulted in lynching or murder, which was all too common in the sixty years following the Civil War” (Jaynes 2005, p. 547).

Any criminal act committed by members of the out-group can lead to strong emotional reactions that reinforce stereotypes against the entire group. Because of the sensitive nature of this topic, it is not easy to have a reasonable debate about single criminal acts and the socio-economic causes of crime.

As we have seen before, categorisation and in-group identity are normal processes. But they can serve as fertile ground for radicalising rhetoric and extremist ideologies.

Especially in times of rapid social, economic and demographic change, some people may struggle to understand the world around them and to adjust to it. Moreover, their loss of status, as well as the loss of status of their in-group, may lead to resentment.

Under such circumstances, categorisation, “us versus them” rhetoric, and in-group superiority can be used by political and cult leaders to mobilise and radicalise a segment of society.

Alice Weidel's rhetoric is just an updated rendering of old stereotypes, tropes and techniques, which still seem to be effective today, as they were a century or more ago.

According to German sociologist Andreas Kemper, anti-democratic movements do not use language to craft arguments for the purpose of solving specific problems. Rather, their “political language is particularly used as a declaration of political affiliation (politisches Zugehörigkeitsbekenntnis)”.

From this perspective, I would argue that Weidel's book is primarily a declaration of political affiliation, a means to construct an in- and out-group dynamic, and to “recruit followers” by stoking fear, anger, a sense of belonging to the in-group, as well as a feeling of superiority towards the out-group.

Although Weidel is openly lesbian and lives with her partner, the Sri Lanka-born Swiss film producer Sarah Bossard, and their two children in Switzerland, she nevertheless propagates the AfD’s ethno-nationalist, anti-LGBTQ+ and reactionary ideology.

This contrast seems contradictory, but it is not unprecedented. There are examples of members of minority groups supporting political organisations that are ideologically hostile to their group, a topic I might explore in another article.

• • •

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Referenced books (Bookshop affiliate links)



•Braddock, K. (2020). Weaponized Words: The Strategic Role of Persuasion in Violent Radicalization and Counter-Radicalization.

•Bühl, A. (2020). Antisemitismus: Geschichte und Strukturen von 1848 bis heute.

•Feddes, A. et al. (2020). Psychological Perspectives on Radicalization.

•Fenton, S. (2010). Ethnicity.

•Jaynes, G. D. (2005). Encyclopedia of African American Society.

•Weidel, A. (2019). Widerworte. Gedanken über Deutschland.

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